Funky Way: The Chicken Slacks At The Cantab Lounge

By Mike Mellor
October 2009

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Photos by Billy Korecki
www.calmovita.com

The first time I saw the Chicken Slacks I had no idea who they were.

It was one of those oppressive summer nights when even after sunset you start sweating the minute you walk outside. My friend and I were on a mission to do some old-fashioned weeknight drinking and the Cantab Lounge was right down the street. The bar wasn’t much cooler than it was outside, but the beer was and we knew that Steve the bartender never leaves you with an empty glass. We decided to stay.

The music hadn’t started when we got there but the band was setting up. They were seven dudes with horns and keys, and some of them were old enough to be my father. I shot my friend a jaded glance and said, “Oh boy, looks like we showed up for the fuddy duddy soul all-stars.” I was expecting something lame, like a cover band you’d find in a cheesy hotel bar off some suburban highway.

The next morning I woke up fully clothed on my friend’s couch with a pounding headache and vague memories of the night before. There was a pimp in a burgundy suit and a matching fedora, a woman twice my age (and twice my size) with whom I’d had a heart-to-heart, and soul music so earnest and strong that by eleven o’clock most of the barflies were shaking on the dance floor.

The band that looked so unassuming had kicked a hole through both standard and obscure soul songs, showing not only a breadth of knowledge but also a real love for the music they were playing. By the middle of the second set they eliminated any doubt as to whether they belonged with this weird little bunch of carousing drunks. Never mind belonging, they commanded it, and I had the sweat and the crow in my mouth to prove it.

A couple of months later the Chicken Slacks strung a few Thursday nights together at the Cantab and they haven’t looked back since, having played 209 consecutive weeks as we go to publication. What started as an unpretentious band in an unpretentious bar has turned into a wildly popular dance party and a Cambridge institution that brings together all walks of life like few things in this stuffy town can.

That unpretentiousness is important. As party bands go, there is the kind that just shows up for the party and the kind like the Chicken Slacks that truly is the party. What makes them different is that their approach does away with play-acting bullshit and focuses on the nuts and bolts of the music. They don’t have matching outfits and they don’t get too cute with gimmicks; they just play their music with the talent, love, enthusiasm and knowledge[1] that matters.

“That's what we've always wanted it to be,” drummer and founding member Justin Berthiaume said when I mentioned it. “Have people come and forget their troubles, have a great time and want to come back and see what we're going to pull off next week.” Based on the number of repeat partygoers I’ve seen at their shows, that is exactly what’s happening.

The key to the band’s style seems to lie in the collection of individuals and how they cohere. It’s interesting to see, for one, how two accomplished front men share the spotlight. Trumpeter John Moriconi had success in his twelve years fronting Mission of Blues, but in this band he graciously defers center stage to Durand “Diamond D” Wilkerson (who they refer to as “lead vocalist and main mojo”). Wilkerson, in turn, shares his vocal duties with Morconi and bassist Rick Rosco.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a front man as talented and charismatic as Wilkerson or a horn player as powerful as Morconi, and the fact that they are willing to share the front of the stage says a lot about the ethos of the band. The great thing is that they know they are all the better for it.

The band also effortlessly mixes younger players into the mix, which gives the band a balanced sound that other soul bands in the region don’t have. “It's a good combination of experience and youthful exuberance,” is how Moriconi put it, and the same can be said for the makeup of their audience. Especially true at their fourth anniversary carnival last month, the crowd at a Chicken Slacks show transgresses boundaries of age, race and social group. It’s always fun to see a group take on the personality of the band it’s following and that’s what happens every week. The vibe is decidedly come as you are and get down.

Through the years band members have come and gone and the Slacks’ method seems to be to find replacements with a different personal style but the same collaborative attitude. Soon they will have to do it again, as Berthiaume announced that he is leaving the band this month for San Francisco. He assured me that, even though he is the last remaining member from the original 2001 lineup, the vision will continue and the band will thrive. If he’s smart enough to build the lineup with the work ethic and the following he has, I believe him.

[1] Speaking of knowledge, John Moriconi let me in on a little secret as to where their obscure covers come from. “We have a really good resource,” he said. “His name is Brother Wayne,” soul music aficionado, record store rat and radio DJ. “His scope and breadth of knowledge of the genre is beyond anything I've ever known.” Check him out Wednesdays between Noon and 2pm on 88.1 WMBR, or on his blog at recordkharma.blogspot.com

www.chickenslacks.com

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